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I think one of the challenges I have faced the most often in writing books has been where to start. I tend to do a lot of flash forwards to jump into the action and follow it up with a chapter or two of context, but I'm afraid this is a bit of a cop-out for not knowing how to manage description vs. action.

What are great ways to jump right into the action without losing the context of where the story is placed and who the characters are?

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Are flash forwards into an intense scene only to come back to the start acceptable, or do they weaken the prose?

  • I would suggest reading The Lost Fleet it does a good job of balancing action with introspective scenes that explain the overall setting. – Ash Aug 15 '18 at 15:48
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Too much non-chronological writing makes it seem like you're insecure about your build-up. It makes it look like you don't trust your reader to build up any kind of investment in a character, so you just fast-forward to unearned conflict then sloppily fill in the details later.

Action and intense scenes mean nothing if the stakes aren't adequately established. Really, the context and the action should be inextricably linked. An example would be this:

The bald man shot the fat man.

All right, this is serious, likely an injury or a death has come from this, but who cares? You need to have the context and the stakes prepared. Now onto the title question:

How to not get lost in details? Simple: While you the author know every little detail about a location, the reader should never know as much as you. This is known as the Iceberg Theory, and states that for ice to 'glide gracefully like an iceberg', there needs to be more context beneath the surface made clear only by how the visible part of the 'iceberg' acts.

Hence, you simply need to ask yourself: Is a scene necessary? What details need to be shown to build the context/character/theme that I want to evoke here? It's all about necessity; if a gun is described as on a wall in act one, it had best become relevant by act three, or there was no point describing it.

  • That is the first time I have ever heard of the Iceberg Theory, but that is a very helpful word picture when managing description. Thank you! – Rhettmartens Aug 15 '18 at 16:03
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    It was coined by Ernest Hemingway, and is a crucial tenet of minimalism, though I think it can be applied to many styles of prose. – Matthew Dave Aug 15 '18 at 16:10
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    Thank you, that's awesome. I'm ashamed to say I have not read enough Ernest Hemingway, though I know modern authors have a lot to be thankful for from his writing style and process. – Rhettmartens Aug 15 '18 at 16:19
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While you are writing a piece it doesn't matter what order you put things in, just get the ideas on paper any way you can. You do however need to be able to apply a logical order to the story during editing, this is not necessarily chronological but it needs to be consistent and make internal sense. Messing around with chronological order is dicey, even when you're using an established mechanism like in-character memory recall to frame a flashback scene you risk confusing readers.

To jump into the action without having to immediately explain the setting one can use a protagonist who knows as little or less than the reader about the lay of the land. In The Lost Fleet our protagonist and narrator, Captain "Black Jack" John Geary is a man out of time, having been declared dead over a century ago. The setting is explained to the reader in a series of revelatory incidents that tell Geary as much about the time he now finds himself in as they tell the reader about the overall setting.

I would be very careful about how much I flipped back and forward in the narrative timeline in the finished product, it's hard to keep everything straight and consistent if the story is always jumping around. Rather start a story where and when you want and tell readers about the setting in bits and pieces either recalled or retold by the cast. Most of this can be done purely in the present tense but occasional flashbacks in the way of "you remember the time that...?" can be useful too.

In terms of not drowning your readers in description, readers should only know what they need to know when they need to know it for the situation to be understandable. If a reader can't understand the situation given only the written details you have told them too little. If they have more information than they need to understand the immediate situation you may have told them too much or you may have told them something you don't want to say later. If you have told the reader anything that isn't relevant to the narrative but rather is part of your worldbuilding process, or another setting element that has no bearing on the actual story, you have said too much.

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